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February 13, 2017

Major Ponzi schemer gets major break from guidelines ... but still subject to major prison time

This local article, headlined "Lexington Ponzi scheme founder, 70, gets nearly 15-year prison term for ZeekRewards," reports on a notable white-collar sentence handed down this morning in a North Carolina federal courthouse.  Here are some details:

A federal judge Monday handed Paul Burks, founder of ZeekRewards.com, a prison sentence of 14 years and eight months for his lead role in the Lexington Ponzi scheme. Judge Max Cogburn Jr. agreed with U.S. attorneys' "fair and generous" sentencing recommendation, a minimum 15 years and eight months and a maximum 19 years and seven months for the 70-year-old Burks.  Burks could have been sentenced to up to 59 years under federal sentencing guidelines.

ZeekRewards.com, founded in 2010, was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history at $939 million, according to federal regulatory officials and prosecutors.  The Lexington companies, which debuted in January 2011, were shut down and their assets frozen in August 2012. There were more than 800,000 victims worldwide.

Cogburn dropped Burks' sentencing by a year so that it would be about double the 90-month prison term handed to Dawn Wright-Olivares. Wright-Olivares and her stepson, Daniel Olivares, pleaded guilty in February 2014 to fraud charges after reaching agreements in December 2013 with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of N.C. Wright-Olivares cooperated with the federal government in its case against Burks.  Wright-Olivares served as ZeekRewards' chief operating officer, while Olivares was senior technology officer. Olivares received a two-year prison term.

On July 21, a federal jury found Burks, of Lexington, guilty of wire and mail-fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and tax-fraud conspiracy. Burks has been free on bond for the past 4 ½ years.  The wire and mail-fraud conspiracy charge, the mail-fraud charge and the wire-fraud charge each carry a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine.  The tax-fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.

Burks opted not to speak on his behalf except to say he approved of the case being presented by his attorney, Noell Tin.... U.S. attorneys, citing Burks’ health and his role as caregiver to his wife, Susan, who has breast cancer, recommended 15.5 years to just short of 20 years. Tin asked Cogburn to set a sentence of no more than 11.5 years, also in consideration for the Burks’ health.

Cogburn and Kenneth Bell, the receiver for ZeekRewards, responded to Tin’s request by saying the U.S. attorneys’ sentencing recommendation was “fair and generous” given the level of crime involved in the Ponzi scheme. “This is a huge amount of money, which is why the sentencing guidelines run to such a large extent,” Cogburn said. “He is essentially facing a life sentencing given his health conditions.”

Tin said that among the health issues affecting Burks are hypertension, diabetes, heart illness, chronic renal failure, prostate cancer, the removal of his esophagus and mild dementia. Burks appeared in good health at the sentencing, though he walked with a slight limp.... The likely [prison] facility [for Burks] could be Butner, where fellow Ponzi scheme felony Bernie Madoff resides....

Cogburn and Bell cited the enormity of the Ponzi scheme and how Burks and other ZeekRewards officials misled and mispresented how the company generated money and how it paid “winners.” Cogburn compared Burks’ marketing strategy of capturing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Biblical story of Jesus of turning loaves and fishes into enough food to feed at least 5,000 individuals. “The scheme got out of hand, more than Mr. Burks may have thought was going to happen,” Cogburn said. “But anyone could have seen what was going to occur outside himself and his (marketing) cheerleaders.”

February 13, 2017 at 04:43 PM | Permalink

Comments

You know what is sad? In America a 15 year sentence for a non-violent crime is considered a "break." Yes, tell me how the victims were economically murdered and harmed and how maybe they have to eat out of trash cans. In Europe, he would have gotten house arrest or a short sentence with a restitution order (not that he'll ever be able to pay it). What is it with American justice, an eye for an eye plus some flesh and a cancer diagnosis (plus lifelong shame and humiliation) is what it takes to be sufficient but no greater than necessary under 18 USC 3553.

Posted by: Farenheit451 | Feb 13, 2017 7:10:03 PM

If the damage exceeds $6 million, the defendant has taken an economic human life. The penalty should be mandatory death penalty. In the absence of any question of guilt, the penalty should be applied at the time of the reading of the verdict. Collateral benefits from the criminal act should be deducted from the damages.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 14, 2017 6:59:21 AM

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